The weaker sex gained a new champion yesterday. The launch of the first all-party group of MPs on men's health has brought the question of why men die sooner than women into the corridors of power.

The weaker sex gained a new champion yesterday. The launch of the first all-party group of MPs on men's health has brought the question of why men die sooner than women into the corridors of power.

It is not an insignificant problem but it has long been ignored. Women live, on average, five years longer than men despite the exigencies of child bearing and rearing. Men are twice as likely to die before the age of 65. Deaths from heart disease, cancer, suicide, accidents and Aids are all higher among men.

The most striking contrast is that between rich men and poor women. The poor die sooner than the rich but the gender gap is so wide that it cancels out this difference. Women in the lowest social class live longer than men in the highest.

So what is the explanation? For Sir Donald Acheson, the former chief medical officer, it is hormones. Testosteronefuelled young men die in accidents and violence while their less driven female peers play it safer. In later life, men succumb to heart disease while women escape because the female hormone oestrogen protects against heart disease.

Sir Donald wrote two years ago: "At all stages of life from the foetus to old age, the mortality of males is higher than that of females ... To reduce these differences there will need to be new health policies directed at the problems of men." Yesterday, the all-party group pledged to make that happen.

In their first public act, the group of 31 MPs - 17 Labour, six Conservative and eight Liberal Democrat - gave their backing to a new campaign by the Men's Health Forum to cut the rate of male suicide, which has risen by 55 per cent in the last 20 years.

In England and Wales in 1999, more than 1,500 men aged 15-34 took their own lives. If it were a disease carrying off the nation's youth in such numbers it would be called an epidemic.

Dr Howard Stoate, chair of the all-party group, said health authorities needed to make greater efforts to reduce the suicide rate. He said: "It is clear that traditional suicide prevention strategies have not been effective as far as young men are concerned and we need to develop more imaginative ways of tackling this problem. The group will ... pay close attention to this problem."

But the gamut of men's health problems runs far wider than self-inflicted violence. In addition to the conventional risks of driving too fast, drinking too much and eating the wrong sort of food, men add to their problems by ignoring their health. Out of a desire to appear strong and invulnerable in a still-macho culture, they neglect early signs of disease.

Despite two decades of efforts to get men to open up emotionally and seek help when they need it, most doctors feel there has been little change.

Ian Banks, a GP and president of the Men's Health Forum, said men needed simple checklists to enable them to keep track of changes in their health. He said: "Belt size is one. If it is going up from 35 inches to 37 to 40 to 42 you are heading towards obesity and your risk of diabetes rises in direct proportion to the notches on your belt.

"Are you functioning mentally? If you find yourself failing to pay attention to what people are saying at the dinner table, that is a classic sign of being under too much stress."

Wives and partners of men were often better at picking up signs than they were themselves. Dr Banks said: "When it comes to checking their testicles [for lumps that could indicate cancer], most men won't have a clue, but their partners probably will.

"They may notice if he gets breathless bending over to tie a shoelace [a sign of heart problems] or is drinking more water and soft drinks than usual [diabetes] or is getting up in the night to pee [prostate problems]."

He added: "We don't want obsessive health fascism but we need to create more health awareness among men like breast awareness in women. It has to be appropriate for, and fit with, men. If we can put it in a mechanistic style - is the exhaust working, is the pump working - men love that."

Ironically, a decade ago it was women who were said to be poorly served by medicine. Discrimination, neglect and intrusive treatment were among the charges. Childbirth and infertility were particular battlegrounds, with doctors being accused of interfering too much in the first and not enough in the second, as was the continuing battle against breast cancer which has since led to improved survival rates.

The Journal of Women's Health was launched in the United States in 1992 and there have been calls here for a separate specialty of women's health. Peter Baker, of Men's Health Forum, said: "We are not in competition with women and we are not out to prove we have a better or a worse deal. We are saying that men have particular health needs just as women do and the NHS has to sort out its provision for both sexes."